For nearly 50 years, Steven Spielberg has defined cinema magic through eye-popping action and heartwarming, humane stories. With Jaws, he chased us out of the waves. With E.T., he taught our spirits to soar like a little boy's bike. With Jurassic Park, he resurrected dinosaurs, and with Indiana Jones, he redefined adventure for new generations. The 75-year-old filmmaker has not slowed down. Only last year, he brought us the absolute marvel that was West Side Story. Now, with The Fabelmans, he turns his lens on himself for a family drama that hits very close to home.
Like Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, Spielberg's The Fabelmans pulls inspiration from the life of its director and co-writer. Like Spielberg once was, his young protagonist Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a Jewish boy who finds magic at the movies. Also like Spielberg, Sammy has three sisters, a mother who was once a concert pianist, and an electrical engineer father whose work moved the East Coast(ish) household to Phoenix, Arizona, in the 1950s.
Devotees of the director will likely relish wondering which bits of the film are pulled directly from his life (like his first homemade movie featuring a toy train crash) and which have been given the ol’ Hollywood glow-up. The master moviemaker mythologizes himself with recreations not only of his youth and family but also the early film shoots that served as earnest homages to the titans who came before him.
There's a joyous nostalgia in sequences where Sammy has dolled up his sisters for their roles in a stagecoach Western or is coaching a mouth-breathing jock to express the gravity of the homemade World War II battle scene before him. In these moments, Spielberg smoothly casts his onscreen analog among the likes of E.T.'s Elliott, A.I.'s David, or Hook's Jack — seemingly ordinary boys with a hidden depth of feeling and the potential for greatness. The attention Spielberg pays to the other figures in this story, however, are painfully hit or miss.
Already there's talk that Williams will campaign for the Best Actress Oscar this winter. Spielberg has given her a showy role as Mitzi Fabelman, a radiant, eccentric, and mentally struggling wife and mother who feels her destiny has been determined — and not on her terms. There's a defiant glamor to Mitzi's look, with her blunt blonde bob and perfectly manicured nails, even when she's wearing dungarees and playing with her kids. A sadness lurks in her stolen glances and the bittersweet and sensual dance she performs in a nightgown, backlit by headlights.
Full of emotive close-ups, it's certainly the kind of performance that's made for Oscar reels. But there's a jarring largeness to it that feels performative. Mitzi with her grand facial expressions and manically buoyant tone feels like she's performing what she thinks a happy homemaker acts like. In that way, this performance reminded me of Carey Mulligan in Wildlife, whose character seemed to fake it until she could make herself into the divas she admired from Hollywood movies. However, Williams's performance too rarely finds a chance for breath. Her vulnerability is played as boldly as her false bravado, with tears and trembles or proclamations so bouncy that they come off as sitcom punchlines. ("I've started therapy!")
Watching the film at its World Premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, I witnessed audiences laugh and cheer for Mitzi, but mostly I feel unnerved by her. For all the adoration Sammy (and Spielberg) shower on this complicated woman, who wounded and inspired her son, it never felt to me like we fully saw her. Instead, she comes in flashes, wowing but disjointed.
Sadly, the other female characters are even less complex. Sammy's sisters are interchangeable as playmates and occasional pests. His grandmother is a caricature of a dour in-law. Even his high school girlfriend is thinly sketched. However, that doesn't stop Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) from comedic brilliance in a scene where this devoted Christian tries to seduce Sammy with a side of prayer. (She has a thing for Sammy because he’s like Jesus: He's Jewish!)
Two beloved comedic actors deliver unforgettable turns in this semi-autobiographical film. Seth Rogen tones down his signature goofiness for his performance as Bennie, the best friend of Sam's dad, Burt (Paul Dano, in a grounding performance). At first, Bennie seems to be a charming sidekick to the action and nothing more. But in a scene involving a bittersweet gift, Rogen puts his stamp on this movie with a messy maturity that still makes me tear up to think of it. As Bennie drives away, I couldn't help but hope desperately that he'd return soon.
As for Hirsch, his Uncle Boris appears upon the Fabelmans' doorstep like a thunderstorm cloud. The black sheep of the family, Uncle Boris actually ran away with the circus; his explosive energy seems like a beacon for Sammy's burgeoning devotion to cinema. When alone with Sammy, Burt not only unfurls the kind of eyebrow-raising truth bombs that only an irksome uncle could, but also delivers a speech about the conflict between art and family. Because how can a passion — a vocation — compete with an obligation?
If you've ever seen a Spielberg movie, including this one, you know how. The latter informs the former, bringing humanity through a dinner table scene in Jaws or a silly electrical fence prank in Jurassic Park. Still, Hirsch's bombastic delivery in this scene is exhilarating, because he pinpoints why the balance isn't easy. And just like that, Hirsch is in the Best Supporting Actor race and at the front.
Again, I was reminded of Belfast, where a filmmaker's fascination with his own origin is perhaps unavoidably weighed down by self-indulgence and sentimentality. Spielberg ambitiously covers a lot of ground in just over two and a half hours. While the main focus is Sammy's evolution as an artist, the B plot follows Mitzi and her flagging faith in her marriage. Meanwhile, supporting characters pop up for emotional wallops and hysterical high school shenanigans. There's also heavy-handed emotional beats, a screeching monkey, and even a cameo from David Lynch that is custom-made to make cinephiles geek out. A lot of this is good, wonderful even! But it's also a little exhausting.
In a script co-written by his West Side Story collaborator and heralded playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg can't seem to kill any of his darlings. The Fabelmans runs with exuberance but too little focus. In the end, it feels frustratingly like too much for one movie. But perhaps after all the incredible, groundbreaking cinema that Spielberg has given us, he must be allowed this indulgence.
The Fabelmans was reviewed out of its World Premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in theaters on Nov. 23.